10 Photographers Who Have Told the Story of the U.S.–Mexico Border
The histories of borders have long interested photographer Tomas van Houtryve. “If you’re born on one side or the other, that can decide how prosperous and free you are,” he said. But the line itself can be arbitrary; borders have been decided by any number of reasons, he continued. “With the passage of time, people start to see them as permanent.”
The origins of the U.S.–Mexico border trace back to President James K. Polk’s “Manifest Destiny”—which sent American troops into Mexico to expand the U.S.’s territory to the western coast—as well as the desire among Southern Americans for more slave states. The Mexican–American War ensued, and at its close in 1848, the border was hotly disputed by the two countries. The following year, after an agreement had been reached, the American survey team that set out to plot its path nearly died due to to the unforgiving climate and terrain.
Today, the impact of the border on both countries is boundless. The immigration debate has reached a fever pitch under the administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who enacted a harsh zero-tolerance deportation policy this spring, and continues to seek funding for a complete border wall.
But the 2,000-mile border remains untameable. In some sections, it is marked by thick metal barriers, but it also crosses over rivers and canyons. When photographer Benjamin Rasmussen visited the border in Texas, he was struck by how “brutal” the land is. He, van Houtryve, and countless other photographers have traveled to the great dividing line to document the people crossing and patrolling it, the towns that sit upon it, and beyond. Below, we share the work of 10 such photographers, who have explored this territory from the 1930s to the present.
A wave is split by fencing along the Mexico-U.S. border at Tijuana, Baja California and Imperial Beach, California. From Tomas van Houtryve’s series “Implied Lines,” 2018. ©Tomas van Houtryve. Courtesy of
From high in the air in California, looking down, the impression that the U.S.–Mexico border makes depends on the light, according to Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve. The metal wall can be seen as a line cast by its own shadow. If it’s cloudy, it gets lost between the surrounding parking lots, freeways, and rivers—“it almost disappears because it’s so thin,” van Houtryve described. But when the sun is low, “it casts this very long shadow.”
Van Houtryve focused on how the border divides the land in his drone series “Implied Lines,” which was supported by a CatchLight fellowship and published in Time magazine this past May.
Van Houtryve, who was raised in California, has been shooting with drones since 2013, using a birds-eye view to evoke the idea of surveillance. His images, in high-contrast black and white, render texture and form like a sculptural frieze.
From above, he said, the border loses its sense of permanence—especially to a drone, which can unwittingly drift over it. “The wall’s physicality becomes completely irrelevant to the drone,” van Houtryve explained. “This very important line suddenly becomes a very virtual line once you’re in the air.”
At its farthest western tip, in San Diego, the border cuts into the ocean. Van Houtryve filmed a short video from above the wall’s end, entitled Divided (2018), which seems almost meditative. “You see the waves coming across the Pacific, and they form these really beautiful very long lines,” he said. At the end of their journey, the waves hit the wall and break in two. “There was something very symbolic there in the difference between the slow, geological [movement] of the waves and the impermanent line put up by humans,” he mused, “that seems a little absurd.”
Griselda San Martin
A young man speaks to his family member through the border fence at Friendship Park, a meeting place on the border between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California. For many families separated by immigration status, it is the only way that they can see their loved ones in person. Photo by Griselda San Martin from her series “The Wall.”Courtesy of the artist.
The division caused by the U.S.–Mexico border is perhaps most apparent at its western end, on a half-acre of land named “Friendship Park.” Here, separated loved ones visit each other through the metal fencing. On the San Diego side, it’s reminiscent of prison: Visits are regulated to a few hours per day on weekends, 10 people at a time, on a first-come, first-served basis, and always monitored by border patrol. The Tijuana side, however, is strikingly different.
“It’s very lively, and there’s a lot of music and a lot of color….There are people selling food, people going to the beach,” described Griselda San Martin, a Spanish-born, New York–based photographer who has been visiting the Mexican side of Friendship Park since 2015. The wall itself is lively, too—stretches of it have been covered with colorful murals.
But no amount of paint can disguise what the barrier represents. San Martin’s subjects, many of whom show up every weekend, have called the meetings with their loved ones “bittersweet.” Up close, they can see—but not touch—their family members. From farther away, San Martin’s photographs show only the shadows of those on the U.S. side, creating unsettling images.
When San Martin first visited Friendship Park, she was shocked by it. She took the first photo of the series then, too—of a man between a thatch of palm fronds, speaking to family members through the painted wall. Since then, she has witnessed family reunions, Mother’s Day visits, quinceañeras, and weddings in Friendship Park. Her images are for her subjects, as well, such as a pastor and his wife who asked her to take their wedding photos in front of the wall; they had been deported, and their families—including their children—remained in the U.S.
Recently, visiting the American side has become harder, with less space and more regulation, according to San Martin. But even without the stricter rules, the wall itself is an insurmountable divider. “The separation is so physical, you can touch it,” she said.
Dorothea Lange, Crossing the international bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Dorothea Lange, Wife of a Mexican sharecropper near Bryan, Texas, 1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Just 13 years after the United States Border Patrol was established as a federal agency in 1924, Dorothea Lange—who is widely considered to be the pioneer of documentary photography—traveled to El Paso, Texas, to photograph the border and those who were crossing it.
Lange is best known for the dignity she imbued in her images of Depression-era agricultural workers, as seen in her most famous photograph, Migrant Mother (1936), taken in Nipomo Valley, California. Her greater oeuvre was marked by the same sense of social justice. Lange engaged her subjects—who ranged from interned Japanese families to Oklahoma drought refugees—and sought their stories, taking extensive notes. (As NPR reported, Lange was irate when her full captions were not published with her images.)
At the border, Lange photographed daily activities—inspectors handling packages; officials checking a freight train for smuggled passengers; citizens passing through turnstiles—but she also took portraits. In one striking image, a Mexican family, consisting of four women and a young boy, sits at an immigration station, waiting to enter the United States, their gazes direct.
Around the same time, in the late 1930s, Lange also took an interest in Mexican agricultural workers and migrants across the Southwest. She traveled to California’s Imperial Valley, documenting workers who lived in slumlike conditions to keep America’s farms running. There, and in Arizona, she continued to ask people about their stories.
While sitting for Lange in California, a Mexican mother holding her child told the photographer: “Sometimes I tell my children that I would like to go to Mexico, but they tell me ‘We don’t want to go, we belong here,’” Lange reported in her caption. She not only established a visual standard for documentary work, but ethical considerations, as well—that photographers owe it to their subjects to not just look, but listen.
Richard Misrach, Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona, 2015, from Border Cantos (Aperture, 2016). © Richard Misrach. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, Pace/MacGill Gallery, and Marc Selwyn Fine Art.
For 40 years, the artist Richard Misrach has traveled in a camper for weeks at a time in the American desert, “just to see what I can discover,” he explained. While seeking compositions that reflect American politics or culture, he avoids well-known areas. So, until 2004, he never considered the U.S.–Mexico border as a subject.
That changed when he came across a blue barrel full of water jugs, marked by a flag in the desert near Ocotillo, California. He learned that humanitarian groups left these water stations for migrants traveling through the treacherous heat.
Misrach photographed the water stations, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he began paying closer attention to the militarizing border wall, which had increasing construction, towers, and patrol. He began traveling along the border; across its length, he noticed a “crude method” of tracking migrants, where agents would drag flat tires behind their vehicles, smoothing out the ground to make any passing footsteps more visible. He photographed the discarded tires, treating them like sculptures; those images would become his first border series, or “canto.”
Misrach also began photographing sections of the border wall, as well as items like clothing, backpacks, and water bottles, collecting those that interested him. They would come in handy later, in 2012, when he befriended composer and sculptor Guillermo Galindo, who was making instruments out of objects left behind by migrants. They began a collaboration that would lead to the book Border Cantos (2016), featuring Misrach’s photos and Galindo’s instruments; the book has been accompanied by international exhibitions and musical performances.
Though the heated debate over a full border wall has caused sustained interest in Misrach’s work, Border Cantos was completed before Donald Trump first lit the match. Having seen the entirety of the border, Misrach says there are too many natural barriers for a wall to be completed end to end. “Building a wall is a political—and very expensive—symbol,” he said.
While his work differs from photojournalism, Misrach hopes to create a timeless set of images to describe the border and the artifacts of those who crossed it. “I go to great lengths to make beautiful pictures of difficult subjects,” he noted.
Brown Field Station in San Ysidro. Photo by Ken Light/Contact Press Images. © Ken Light.
In the 1980s, photojournalist Ken Light returned to the U.S.–Mexico border again and again to accompany night patrol as they found and apprehended migrants. Border crossings had been steadily increasing since the ’70s, topping 1 million yearly apprehensions the following decade. Light, who is based in California, had seen undocumented workers hiding out in the fields as far north as the State of Washington while working on a monograph about agriculture. He decided to include images showing the long and arduous journey migrants were undertaking.
Light later received permission to do a series of ride-alongs at the Tijuana–San Ysidro border. Due to the lack of activity during the day, he began going out with the patrol at night, from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. He was given a level of access that would be hard—if not impossible—to get today, but it came at a cost. On the first day, a supervisor began hitting a man that he had apprehended; Light did not photograph the scene. “I realized if I took that picture, that would be the last day that I ever photographed [there],” he recalled.
San Ysidro, June 2, 1985. Photo by Ken Light/Contact Press Images. © Ken Light. Courtesy of the artist.
San Ysidro, March 29, 1986. Photo by Ken Light/Contact Press Images. © Ken Light. Courtesy of the artist.
Word spread that he could be trusted, and for years, he worked at the border without censorship. He continued to photograph in the pitch dark with his Hasselblad camera and Vivitar flash, unable to see in front of him until the flash went off. To help give a sense of “why these people were coming and what they were leaving behind,” he expanded the project, photographing people from Mexico up into California’s Central Valley. That body of work became his 1988 book To the Promised Land.
Today, Light is revisiting his night work, putting together a new edit with around 70 unseen photos, several of which recently published in the Washington Post. He was motivated by the “horrible” commentary from Trump about undocumented immigrants that came to “a rolling boil” during the 2016 election. “I thought, ‘I should go back and look at that work. This is again going to be a big issue,’” he recalled. But, this time, he found that access was restricted. “It’s really curated now, I think, by immigration,” he said. “They are much more conscious now about the effects a photograph might have in terms of the public conversation.”
Fresh migrant footprints through a dried up pond in Mexico just south of Mission, Texas, near the Rio Grande River. Photo by Kfrom the series “As Above So Below,” 2014–2015. Courtesy of the artist.
In the summer of 2014, the town of McAllen, Texas, was thrust into the news cycle as women and children fleeing violence in Central America poured over the U.S.–Mexico border. They crossed the Rio Grande in groups of hundreds, overwhelming border security and pushing detention centers past their capacity.
Kirsten Luce, a New York–based photographer, knew the political structure of McAllen intimately, having worked for three years at the town’s daily newspaper, The Monitor, at the beginning of her career. She appealed to the Department of Homeland Security to allow her to ride in their helicopters, in order to survey their efforts from above. “I wanted to document this unprecedented surge in resources that was state, local, and federal,” she said.
Luce took multiple helicopter rides daily, determined to observe as much as possible, and returned the following year for a second body of work. The first series, published by Bloomberg Businessweek, was shot around the Rio Grande River; the second, published by Time, was shot 70 miles north, around a checkpoint in Brooks County. “In terms of the risk to the migrants, it’s the most dangerous place,” Luce said of the area. To avoid the checkpoint, those traveling must do so on foot, in treacherous heat, and in disorienting brushland.
The helicopters Luce took flew low to the ground, intended for close pursuit, so she was able to observe not just the migrants, but the physical markers agents looked for, as well, such as footprints in the dirt and disruptions in the grass.
She could also see the full scope of border patrol’s apprehension efforts—agents on horses, in ATVs, in SUVs, and with tracking dogs. “From the air, it was very clear to me the amount of money that was being spent per hour per day [on] this kind of abstract idea of securing a border,” she noted. “The task of trying to locate somebody sneaking into the country just seems sort of Herculean from the air. You can get a sense of how impossible the task is.”
USA. San Ysidro, Ca. Mexican children playing with kite on the U.S. side of the border. (They are in the U.S. illegally.) The houses below them are in Tijuana, Mexico, where they live. Photo by Alex Webb. © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Magnum Photos
Alex Webb first photographed the U.S.–Mexico border in 1975, taking black-and-white photos of the border towns in Mexico and Texas over the next three years. He switched to color in 1979, and would continue photographing through the turn of the millenium, publishing the book Crossings in 2003. Webb was present as the number of the migrants ballooned in the 1980s and exploded during the United States’s economic boom in the ’90s; he was fascinated by the stretch of land that seemed to stand apart from the two countries.
“Rather rapidly, my work began to expand into the whole feel of the border—what is this strange world that is neither the U.S. nor Mexico? There’s a perpetual sense of transience: everyone is always trying to go to the other side,” he commented in a feature by Magnum Photos. While the border fence does appear in his work, Webb also spent time on the streets, in nightclubs and bars, and on the outskirts of border towns. Two years ago, he echoed his thoughts, describing the border territory “as a kind of third country…a place with its own rules, its own traditions.”
Webb continued to photograph Mexico for another photo book, La Calle, in 2016. His vision of the country, in shadowy saturation, would also inspire the cinematography of the 2015 film Sicario, a crime-thriller about the escalating drug war, set around the border.
Central American migrants traveling in the 'Migrant Via Crucis' queue outside the Padre Chava's kitchen soup for breakfast and legal counseling, in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on April 27, 2018. Photo by Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images.
In April, a caravan of approximately 1,200 migrants traveling from Central America to the U.S. caught the ire of President Trump. Announcing that he would send troops to “guard” the border, the caravan was used as a symbol of threat to the country. The migrants “thought they were just going to walk right through Mexico and right through the border,” he claimed.
But that wasn’t an accurate portrayal. The annual caravans, called the “Migrant Via Crucis,” organized by the advocacy group People Without Borders, are not for illegal immigration, but for those seeking asylum—including many families escaping violence in their home countries. Guillermo Arias, a photojournalist with Agence France Presse who is based out of Tijuana and has been covering the border since 2004, has photographed three caravans.
The journey for the asylum-seekers is arduous; they travel on foot, by freight train, and by bus. “They finally arrive to the border after days and, in some cases, months of traveling through very dangerous places, pursued by authorities and gangs; [they are] victims of all kinds of abuse,” he explained. “The caravan [was] born out of the necessity [for] security—security they found traveling as a group.” (However, he added, the attention from Trump afforded safe passage for this year’s caravanbecause of the presence of journalists and activists.)
Many do not complete the journey, and when they do reach their destination, even more will be turned away. “Not because they don’t deserve it, so to speak,” Arias said. “[It’s] simply because most of them don’t have the ‘evidence’ to support their cases.”
Arias’s photographs of this year’s caravan show families as they disembark from the buses, rest in shelters, receive legal counseling, and then start the long wait to surrender themselves to U.S. officials at the port of entry. As a photojournalist, Arias tries to take an objective view with his images. “Most of the border stories are already charged with high levels of emotion, political tension, and human tragedy, so I believe it is fundamental not only for me, but for all photojournalists covering these issues, not to over-dramatize the events we photograph,” he explained.
But one fact that he thinks is often misunderstood in American media coverage is the motivation of people trying to migrate north. It’s not the search for work, but the fear of violence from the cartel, whose members make their money off of the American public, and use guns smuggled across the border. Today, “most Mexicans migrating to the U.S. do it mainly based on fear,” he said. “These people are not in pursuit of the American Dream; they just want some peace in their lives.”
An Anduril surveillance tower is tested on the border in southwestern Texas. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen. © Benjamin Rasmussen. Courtesy of the artist.
This past April, Denver-based photographer Benjamin Rasmussen received an assignment from Wired to photograph a story about a national-defense tech start-up called Anduril. The company is something of a black sheep in Silicon Valley, due to its founder’s vocal support of the Trump administration (Palmer Luckey, who also founded VR company Oculus) and its tech, which gives border patrol a powerful method to survey the area. It uses VR and surveillance tools, combined with an AI algorithm, to pinpoint people from a great distance. A sample of Anduril’s tech was being installed at the border, and the company was in talks with the U.S. government to lease it (that discussion is still ongoing).
Rasmussen didn’t want to use the typical visual language of tech stories, which have images that are “very bright, and poppy, and kind of saturated,” he noted. “You cannot allow people to think about the technology without thinking about the implications of where and how it’s used.” Instead, he pitched to his editor the idea of using the visual language of the border—“It’s kind of harsh; it’s a little bit more empty,” he explained.
The border had been of interest to Rasmussen for some time—specifically, the idea that U.S. citizens’ rights do not extend all the way to the dividing line. At the border, “you don’t have the same right to privacy; you don’t have the same right [against] unreasonable search and seizures,” he said. Anduril’s technology seemed to represent the worst of that, seemingly providing border patrol with a powerful new tool that could be used to violate people’s rights. Further, it allowed an algorithm to decide “what is and what isn’t human,” thus identifying the likelihood of a subject being an animal, object, or person.
While at the border, Rasmussen found that he had incorrectly assumed that all of Anduril employees fell on the red side of the political aisle. Many of them, aside from Luckey, were not. An executive that Rasmussen spent time with explained that the technology’s precision would help border patrol make better decisions as to who to apprehend.
Still, Rasmussen was not at ease. “To me, that doesn’t change the moral complexity of creating a very powerful tool that’s going be in the hands of people who, if you look historically, I think have oftentimes tended to use [their power] very abusively,” he said.
A man looks through the U.S.-Mexico border fence into the United States on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images. From Undocumented by John Moore, published by powerHouse Books.
You would be hard-pressed to find a U.S. citizen who didn’t see the photograph this past June of the young Honduran girl crying at the border. The image became a symbol of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, enacted in April, which separated children from parents and caused a spike in the number of children housed in detention centers while their parents awaited trial.
The photographer, John Moore, wasn’t present by chance. The Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist, who is on staff with Getty Images, has been focusing on immigration stories in Central and North America since 2008, following 17 years of international postings. Moore said he saw the immigration crisis with “fresh eyes,” and began a body of work in earnest in 2010 after SB 1070, the sweeping anti-immigration law, passed in Arizona. This year, Moore published a book, Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States–Mexico Border, which combines several series illustrating border security, deportations, ICE raids, and immigrant communities in both countries.
“I think by showing so many sides of the story in the comprehensive way, I’ve attempted to humanize the issue as much as possible,” Moore said. “Because when all sides see the other as human beings, it’s easier, I hope, to come up with more lasting solutions that have evaded this country so far on immigration.”
Over the past several years, Moore has built a network through nonprofits and U.S. agencies, and is fluent in Spanish, having lived in Mexico City and Nicaragua. Though telling every perspective would be an unattainable task, he aims to foster empathy through the work he has amassed.
“Sometimes the undocumented community is simply referred to in terms of statistics—for instance, that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Well, that’s 11 million different stories,” he said. And he’ll continue to tell them.
Header video: An excerpt of Thomas van Houtryve, Divided, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kirsten Luce appealed to local authorities to ride in their helicopters; she appealed to the Department of Homeland Security. Additionally, Luce shot her second series for TIME in 2015.